Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend
Running Time: 128 minutes
As those dark, cold, post-Christmas winter months kick off a year already tainted with political uncertainty and social pessimism, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land might just be that small ray of sunshine we all need.
Set in Los Angeles, La La Land follows the blossoming romance between plucky, aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and stubborn jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling). As their future together looks written in the stars, the lure of their own career dreams begins to test the strength of their relationship.
Musicals are most certainly the marmite genre of the cinematic spectrum. But love them or loathe them, even the most stubborn of souls would do well not to be drawn in to the warm, vibrant and colourful world Chazelle has created with La La Land. Whereas his previous work, Whiplash, was an intense, aggressive, blood, sweat and tears beast, Chazelle’s latest outing offers up an entirely different palette of emotion. Right from the opening sequences – an audacious group song and dance number amidst an LA traffic jam – we are invited into a joyously kinetic contemporary world of nostalgic sprinklings where hearts are sure to be warmed. The rags to riches to rags to riches romance narrative line walked is certainly nothing new (aligning itself nicely with the film’s cyclical, seasonal structure), and for the most part, the plot turns it takes are predictable. But crucially, this sense of ‘seen it all before’ is La La Land’s way of paying homage to the great musicals that have gone before; and it is an overriding nostalgia that can be seen injected into storyline, character and the film’s retro fitted style. Gosling and Stone are perfect casting choices as echoes of a Hollywood golden era, whilst simultaneously embracing the modern. This is because Chazelle’s piece is as much steeped in the contemporary as it is in the past – Gosling’s jazz traditionalist finds himself in a more mainstream, pop-jazz hybrid band; Stone’s character drives a Prius; and the film’s final act moves in ways one might not expect it to. This playful juggling act is something Chazelle copes with masterfully, giving us the combination of humour, relevance and marvellous, toe-tapping escapism.
You instantly get the impression that this is far more than just another romance tale. There is a much richer film at work here, where the concept of love takes many forms, and the binding and separating powers it can have are given to us in colours of equal prominence. Previous attempts at casting mainstream actors in such musicals (see Russel Crowe in Les Miserables) have occasionally highlighted the difficulty to convincingly grasp the genre’s art form, however, Gosling and Stone are instantly likeable as the leading duo and their transition from more stand-alone acting episodes to sudden song and dance numbers just feels so utterly seamless. Yes, La La Land is as cheesy as Wallace and Gromit’s snack cupboard (perhaps even a touch pretentious), but it fully knows and embraces it. It might just be a tad too long, and there are sustained passages in the film’s final third where going full domestic drama means that it loses its musical touch. But these are merely black blotches on a canvas of loud and spectacular brilliance.
As much to enjoy visually as there is aurally, La La Land is an infectious, at times heart-breaking, but ultimately uplifting cinematic parade. Chazelle only adds to his growing reputation as a filmmaker who has the knack of creating truly memorable works. If nothing else, La La Land will most certainly leave you with a smile fixed across your face long after the credits roll.